Journeys No. 19: Central Coast, California

Low-exposure pandemic travel is possible, especially via an old-fashioned road trip.

On the Road Again 

For a travel writer, I’ve been pretty stationary lately. Yes, I’ve hopped across the Atlantic twice in the three-plus months since the Covid-19 pandemic took over all our lives. But as someone accustomed to surveying half a dozen countries per season, it doesn’t feel like I’ve actually traveled for quite some time. Quarantines, lockdowns and curfews will do that. 

But cabin fever was not what inspired me to change that, though I imagine many people are feeling it by now. It was a simple desire to see something new, which is often what drives me to explore far-flung places. I was up for anywhere, as long as it was somewhere that I’d never been before—and an easy drive from LA. I just wanted a little something new.  

So Keith and I decided to ease back into travel in the safest and most comfortable way possible: a short road trip up California’s Central Coast. We didn’t have to go too far—two-and-a-half hours to be exact—to discover Los Alamos, a quaint Old West destination with lovely food and wine, cool design, and a supremely relaxing vibe. 

In the spirit of new-to-us-ness, we stopped at Santa Barbara institution La Super-Rica Taqueria for a late breakfast on the way up, and found a socially distanced waiting area and masked, gloved cooks preparing our tacos. (This doubled as a much-needed restroom stop, since it seems many gas stations have closed their toilets during the pandemic—something to consider when embarking on a road trip!) 

Discovery is one of the best parts of heading to a new place. But during a global health emergency that can also feel like the scariest. In California at least, masks are required in all public places, and we were happy to observe everyone following the rule to a T in pocket-sized Los Alamos, just off the 101. Not that there were many people around at all. Early in the week when we visited, the antique shops along the main drag, Bell Street, were closed, and the handful of restaurants and wine tasting rooms kept pared-back hours. In other words, social distancing takes zero effort in the mellow Santa Ynez Valley town. 

It’s easy at Skyview Los Alamos, too. This is the 1950s roadside motel that in 2018 was reimagined as a luxury boutique hotel, retaining its original low-profile midcentury architecture but zhooshed up with marble, leather, and velvet, divine bedding, fire pits, outdoor showers, and dreamy fine art photography. Among the many details that caught my eye were rows of distressed straw Teressa Foglia hats in the intimate lobby-slash-shop, an army green Quonset hut, and restored quirky green cactus columns—complete with a wooden woodpecker—that hold up the porte-cochère. 

I was thrilled for all these stimulating new visuals evident immediately upon arrival, just after we savored sandwiches outside the delectable Bob’s Well Bread Bakery (well choreographed, I might add, since they close Mondays at 3 p.m. and don’t open again until Thursday morning). And bucolic views to boot—we looked out over rolling pastures and counted horses in the distance under blue skies. 

Because of Covid-19, there are many rules in place at Skyview, and we felt grateful for all of them. Only one party was allowed inside the lobby at a time, for example, and we were asked what time we’d like our complimentary breakfast (overnight oats, granola and Greek yogurt, fruit, hardboiled eggs, coffee and OJ) delivered contact-free at our door. The room wouldn’t be cleaned during our stay, but we could request extra towels. To ensure social distancing at the sunny blue pool—in which I was so ready to indulge—they were giving each party one two-hour slot per day. (Lucky us, Tuesday was slow enough to finagle both a morning and late-afternoon window.) And we got not only welcome peanut butter cookies, but a glass bottle of cucumber-scented Clean Freak hand sanitizer. 

The hotel’s chic restaurant, Norman, was open with a limited seasonal menu and spaced tables, though we opted to have our locally sourced seafood dinner delivered in takeout containers so we could enjoy it in the fluffy bed, wearing waffle-weave bathrobes we requested via text message. To reduce contact, guests are being asked to send queries or desires via text message, and we got prompt, polite replies. 

As it turned out, every meal we ate in Los Alamos was excellent, and came with its own unique ambience. Apart from dining in bed, we chowed down on BLTs and pulled pork with chilled local vino under an umbrella at Plenty on Bell, and ventured into an actual indoor dining room for our first date-night dinner in a restaurant since March. That apparent milestone took place at the acclaimed, female-helmed Bell’s, where we’d poked our masked faces in the door earlier to see about a reservation, since it’s currently strictly reservation only. 

After so much time, the excitement of getting a bit dressed up—putting on makeup, even!—to go out felt like embarking on a wild, new experience. Ultimately though, the attentive staff of Bell’s made it feel nostalgically normal. Normal with masks, that is (our waiter wore one that said “Keep calm and wear a mask”), and hand sanitizer hanging out with a bucket of sunflowers and another holding bottles of bubbly and white wine. Social distancing mandates meant our table beside a big potted palm felt wonderfully intimate, more private and romantic than is typical when restaurants pack people into banquette seating mere inches apart. It was the perfect setting for a delicate and flavorful five-course, prix fixe French-meets–coastal Californian meal. My favorite part? Melt-in-your-mouth Parisian gnocchi served with Branden’s mushrooms from a small urban mushroom farm 20 minutes up the highway. (Keith’s Motley Crew Ranch rabbit pâté en croûte blew him away.) I forgot what a difference it makes being served straight from the open kitchen.

It’s amazing how many novel sensations one can fit into 48 hours, especially when seeking something fresh. A holiday doesn’t have to be far away, or lengthy, as we proved with our petite road trip up the coast. If done consciously it also, even in a frightening time, can be quite low risk, for you and your hosts. Outdoor spaces will always be my favorites, and fortunately they’re the safest right now. When a brilliant stroke of pink swept across the sky, Adirondack chairs on the hilltop perch were the ideal place to enjoy the expansive show. It was my first sunset since before the pandemic began, and it felt invigorating. That simple sight felt like a valid reason—or maybe even reward—for venturing out, masks and all.